Sixteen consecutive days of bush camping and unrelieved time in the truck's cramped spaces by now had everyone a little stir crazy and temperamental. It's like putting atwo dozen cats in a bag and letting them fight it out, twenty some odd intelligent and civilized people who have all gone feral
. The social dynamics of our group through northern Mongolia increasingly resembled something out of Lord of the Flies, as Carr further challenged Betsy for the role of dominant female and in the group and people threw occasional temper tantrums as small issues became major irritants that can't be avoided in the bubble of truck life. The pettiest things led to serious altercations - two cook groups arguing heatedly over whether one had used the other's cabbage and tomatoes and to which cook group the better watermelon belonged, arguments over whether someone was stealing from others the tent nails that were diminishing in number, accusations that some people weren't washing their hands properly that would lead us all to get ill, quarrels over what drinks the truck refrigerator should be used to cool and whether some people were sitting too frequently in Tonka's more desirable and less bumpy front seats, and constant gossip over what other's have been doing and who's "being an asshole". I wasn't on speaking terms with Andrea for over a week over the issue of a candy wrapper I left on my seat and the tone in which she spoke to me about it. Perhaps the biggest issues had to do with toileting, with Carr insisting at campsites and at stops along the way that men go in one direction and women in the other; every so often you'd her yell scream at someone in her loud voice and strong Irish accent, "You're close to the truck, you perv!"
We arrived in Moron, Khovsgol Province's capital and Mongolia's third largest city, for a few hours of shopping and to refill Tonka's water and petrol tanks
. Despite its relative size, Moron is a dusty town filled with a mix of gers with fences around them and small wooden houses, a small food market and larger dry goods market with a few two story commercial buildings around them, and a lot of horse-pulled carts. Wandering around Moron all felt a bit like a short field trip from the small mobile insane asylum Tonka had become. Charlie and Ben let us out on our own for a while in town to mingle with other people because they knew by then we'd developed a kind of homing instinct for the truck, maybe because we associated it with food or something. After we all got back on the truck we made another a quick stop for the drivers and guides to get the propane gas cannisters refilled. "Don't go anywhere," Charlie told us, and we all sat there patiently almost as if locked back in our mental asylum after our big day's outing from the truck.
That evening we camped on the shores beautiful Erhil Lake at around 7,000 feet where we experienced a spectacular sunset and a roaring campfire that helped keep the swarms of gnats away. Several visitors to campsite that night, seemingly coming out of nowhere since I couldn't see even a ger in any direction when I climbed up a low mountain near the lake. The most notable of these was the local veterinarian, who according to Vanya was two days older than I am, despite looking about twenty years older from the harsh weather conditions. This fact came to light quite quickly since one's age seems to be one of the first things Mongolians ask about when they meet, not unlike the "What do you do?" Americans immediately ask upon meeting.
The road into Khovsgol Province was an especially beautiful mix of forested mountain passes and broad grassy river valleys. We stopped as we entered the province at a roadside inn that looked like something out of Silk Road tale with dozens of loaded camels sitting outside and traditionally-garbed Mongolian men sipping salted yak butter tea inside. All along the road herders were moving enormous hers of sheep towards Moron to be marketed for next month's (July) Nadaam festival, the most important of the year which usually coincides with the greenest pastures of mid-summer.